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February 11, 2003

Breaking Balls

Playoff Baseball in April

by Derek Zumsteg

Ah, what a World Series we had. Two wild card teams facing off, each worthy of inclusion in the playoffs; a stunning vindication of the Wild Card.

So should we expand the playoffs to include more teams? Preliminary research by Prospectus author Jeff Bower indicates that for the NBA, an expand playoff system results in increased attendance. And yet, while I think we need to do more research on this, when has baseball ever let the need to consider the long-term consequences of changes stand in the way of progress? Let's get going!

There are some great ideas out there on this topic, from the extra teams idea Selig devised (which, like all Selig's thoughts, is immediately leaked to the press for feedback, because apparently he's incapable of sustained contemplation) to NFL-style seedings, bye series, round robins, and all kinds of other good stuff. Fortunately for us, the reductio ad absurdum argument has already been carried out for us in both the NHL and NBA, where nearly every team makes the playoffs and those playoffs seem to last as long as the season.

Baseball needs more playoff excitement. I propose a radical plan so earthshaking, so forward-thinking that I hesitate even to mention it before filing for the appropriate patents. But here it is, good readers:

No regular season.

Yes! No regular season at all. Instead, a round-robin tournament. Now, to make things totally fair, every team gets a berth into the round-robin tournament - that's right, every team is a playoff team! For fairness in scheduling, we have to eliminate interleague play, then divvy up the games.

In the AL, each playoff team plays each of the 13 other AL playoff teams 12.46 times. Each NL playoff team plays every other NL playoff team 10.80 times. These games would be evenly divided into games played at a team's home park and on the road. The teams would rotate, with their schedules as even as possible in terms of rest days and travel burdens. I call this phase the "Balanced Round Robin."

Think of the added excitement! Every game, all season long, is a playoff game, with implications for who will go home with the trophy and who will go home with nothing.

At the conclusion of the round-robin tournament, the team in each division with the best record will advance. Also moving on will be a "Commissioner's Team" - the club that performed best without achieving a divisional title. Now, without interleague play and a truly fair round-robin tournament, every team will stand on equal footing for advancement to the next round.

The next two rounds to determine the World Series teams will be head-to-head competition, and things proceed like traditional playoffs do today. In the World Series, for the first time, the two leagues meet. Oh, the drama! Teams that have never faced each other, from two leagues that may be of differing quality - but we won't know - compete for the game's greatest achievement. You'd be able to feel the anticipation.

But you know, why stop there? In this wacky world, shouldn't we use modern innovations to finally spice up something as bland as scheduling? How about this: Take the 162 game round-robin tournament and make it elimination. Every month of the baseball season, the team in each league with the worst record to date is eliminated. Players and the organization get humiliated, no spinning turnstiles to keep revenue humming, no money coming in from broadcast deals or program sales. I think that'd be motivation for some teams to start competing finally (I'm looking at you, Tampa Bay). Then the next round starts, with the competition a little tougher. Sure, teams would have to do more on-the-fly scheduling, but we already change game times based on the whim of TV networks, what's the big deal if one of the participants changes? Would anyone complain if, late in the season, the Red Sox showed up for a series instead of the Rangers? Of course not.

Eliminating one team after April, May, June, July, and August wouldn't be too harsh: In the AL last year we'd probably have lost Detroit, Tampa Bay, Kansas City, Texas, and Baltimore. And in the NL: Milwaukee, Chicago, San Diego, Pittsburgh, New York. Wow, two new stadiums and no games going on - that'd almost be as bad as having games no one went to. It would certainly give those teams a lot of incentive to become competitive, since profits won't come in without game-related revenue to drive them.

Courtesy of baseball-reference.com, here are the teams who'd have received the axe last year:

Month   Team            WPct
----------------------------
April   Milwaukee       .308
        Detroit         .320
May     Philadelphia    .396
        Tampa Bay       .346
June    San Diego       .358
        Kansas City     .397
July    Chicago Cubs    .419
        Texas           .421
August  Pittsburgh      .441
        Toronto         .437

Elimination solves the problem of those embarrassing low-turnout, late-season games. Who really cares if Baltimore faces Detroit late in September? Now, no one would have to. Valuable SportsCenter time wouldn't have to be wasted on these losers.

Another thing about this type of scheduling: It discourages this foo-foo Billy Beane early-season tinkering. Who wants to see a team figure out what they need to fix during the first two months of the season? Nobody, that's who. We want to see teams play hard-charging, take-no-prisoners baseball right out of the gate. Who cares if they might be red-hot in September when you're huddling under a blanket in freaking April? I don't want to see my team fuddling around with some stupid three-headed offense/defense/veteran presence platoon in left field; I want action!

If there's anything baseball needs, it's some excitement for these cellar-dwelling teams, and this is just the kick in the ass to get it going. There'd be this amazing desperation trying to avoid going home - teams making deals to keep their doors open, players going all out. A bad losing streak is more than just numbers; a team's continued viability as a business may hang in the balance. And if that kind of money-losing potential forces teams to change hands to owners who will pay money to make money, then everyone wins.

Balanced Round-Robin Elimination: It's the only way to go.

Derek Zumsteg is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.

Related Content:  Scheduling,  The Who

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